"A healthy, delicious lunch can lift your mood, fuel you through the afternoon, and increase your overall well-being," says Heidi Swanson, a two-time James Beard Award winner and the author of the best-selling cookbook Super Natural Simple (Buy It, $15, amazon.com). "Level up yours by boosting the flavor with dressings, drizzles, and crunchy toppings that also lend a nutritional punch and color. Bright salads, soups, and bowls tend to be packed with vitamins and minerals. Plus, they're beautiful to sit down to."
Here, Swanson shares her expert-but-easy tips to create a vegetarian lunch that's full of flavor and exciting textures. (Related: 4 Shortcuts to Make Packing a Lunch Easy Again)
1. Prep In Advance
Weekday vegetarian lunches come together easier if you get some of the main elements ready on the weekend, says Swanson. Skip the supermarket and buy lettuce, arugula, and spinach at the farmers market because they're more flavorful, she says. Wash, dry, and chop or tear greens and other vegetables so you can add them to your dishes as needed. Also, keep different kinds of cooked whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa, and farro, in the fridge. Mix them together to add variety to your meal.
2. Experiment with Bold Add-Ins
A spice or an herby olive oil can transform the simplest vegetarian lunches into something exceptional, says Swanson. Use these recipes as a starting point, then play around with different spice-and-herb blends on your own.
Magic Green Herby Drizzle
"This garlicky oregano parsley stunner is good on nearly everything," says Swanson. Spoon it over vegetarian lunches such as risotto, rice bowls, or soup; try it on Blistered Cherry Tomato Soba; or add some fresh lemon juice to turn it into a salad dressing.
To Make: In a wide-mouthed jar with a lid, add 1/4 cup fresh oregano or marjoram, 1/4 cup fresh parsley, 2 garlic cloves, and 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil. Use an immersion blender (or put all ingredients in a food processor) to combine until smooth. Season with salt. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Add this topping to just about any vegetarian lunch dish, says Swanson. It's delicious on noodles and grain bowls, and it gives the perfect finishing crunch to salads. Her advice? Apply liberally.
To Make: Preheat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the center. Place 2 nori sheets (8 in.) on a baking sheet, and toast 4 to 5 min. Remove the nori from the oven, let cool, then crumble into a small bowl. Add 3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 cup salted peanuts, 2 tablespoon nutritional yeast, and the zest of 1 lemon to the bowl, and mix well. Store in a jar with a lid at room temperature for up to 1 month.
If you love your food feisty, keep this next-level nut butter in your pantry, says Swanson. The spicy spread is an unexpected and punchy addition to a lunchtime crudités platter. It's also great tossed with noodles or drizzled over cooked grains (just thin it with a bit of hot water first), or slather it on your favorite sandwich.
To Make: Combine 1 lb. toasted walnuts, almonds, or hazelnuts, 1 Tbsp. cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 2 teaspoons ground ginger, 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract, 2 teaspoon maca powder (optional), and 1 tablespoon mesquite flour (optional) in a food processor or a blender. Process for 1 to 2 min., until the nuts crumble and become a paste. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to 1 month.
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3. Try These Creative Combos
The ideal vegetarian lunch has a grain, noodle, or salad base; vegetables; plant-based protein, like beans, lentils, or marinated tofu; crunch from nuts or seeds; and a dressing or drizzle to bring it all together, says Swanson. Use this formula to whip up your own concoctions, or make one of her go-tos. (Related: High-Protein Lunch Ideas and Sides You Can Easily Tote to Work)
Your favorite soup with Magic Green Herby Drizzle; salted garlicky yogurt drizzle (plain yogurt with a little sea salt and mashed garlic) or coconut cream; brown rice; toasted seeds or nuts, crispy baked wonton bits, or croutons.
A salad of asparagus spears with soba noodles or brown rice; lemony pine nuts (made with garlic, salt, oil, and lemon zest)
A bowl of roasted chickpeas with cooked broccoli; toasted nuts and seeds; shredded cabbage; and spicy turmeric oil (turmeric, red pepper flakes, hot paprika, ginger, sunflower oil, and toasted sesame oil)